7 Essential Supplements for Women

Our bodies need specific amounts of nutrients to carry out even the smallest of functions. A healthy diet will include most of the nutrients our body needs, but the foods we eat don’t always give us enough.

“My goal as a dietitian is always to be able to build out an eating plan that doesn’t require essential supplementation, that’s always your best route,” says Sarah Thomsen Ferreira, RD, manager of clinical nutrition at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine. “But supplements are a great route to take when you have increased need and you aren’t able to meet that.”

Since supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) like food or medications are, Thomsen Ferreira notes that it’s important to look for supplements that have been tested by a third party and are USP or NSF verified, meaning it’s been verified that the supplements contain what the bottle says.

Women should tailor their supplements so they don’t end up causing damage by taking too much, Thomsen Ferreira advises. “You really want to fine-tune your supplement regimen so the amount you are taking is supplementing your diet, rather than taking large amounts that your body isn’t able to use in the way you’re intending,” she says.

Different bodies need different nutrients, and for female bodies, some nutrients are extra important. Here are seven nutrients women may want to pay attention to.

1. Calcium: The Bone Builder

Calcium is an essential mineral found in high amounts in milk and other dairy products as well as fortified foods, such as orange juice and nut milks, that have added calcium. Typically, about 1 to 2 percent of a female body’s weight is calcium, per research. Calcium is synonymous with bone health, which can become a problem for female bodies much sooner than males. According to a study, females have lower bone density than males, regardless of nutrition. Older women are also at higher risk for developing osteoporosis than men because hormonal shifts during menopause directly affect bone density, the U.K. National Health Services (NHS) reports. In fact, women are 4 times more susceptible to osteoporosis than men, cites Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Why is calcium important? Almost all your body’s calcium is found in your bones and teeth, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), making it an essential nutrient for bone health. Calcium also plays a role in regulating heart beats and muscle contractions, blood clotting, and normal cell function.

Who needs it? All women, especially the following:

  • Calcium is super important for females starting in their teenage years. As much as 90 percent of adult bone mass is achieved by age 18, and peak bone mass usually occurs in the late twenties. By the time a female is in their thirties, their bone mass usually begins to decline, reports the NIH.
  • Menopausal and postmenopausal individuals also need calcium, because bone loss tends to accelerate as the body produces less estrogen, according to the NHS.

How much should you take? Again, it’s best to get calcium from food rather than supplements. If you don’t feel like you’re getting enough calcium from food, particularly if you’re 51 years old or older, you may benefit from calcium supplementation. Recommended calcium doses vary, but aim to get around 500 to 600 milligrams (mg) daily, according to the NIH. It’s recommended to get help from your doctor and nutritionist to determine if and what dose may be appropriate for you.

If you are taking supplemental calcium, calcium citrate may be a better choice if you don’t produce a lot of stomach acid. This is often the case for some women as they get older as well as women taking medications that reduce stomach acid production to treat ulcers, MedlinePlus reports.

That being said, it is possible to get too much calcium, Thomsen Ferreira says, adding that too much calcium can cause kidney issues. If you have a history of kidney disorders or are taking diuretics or other medications daily, talk to your doctor before taking a calcium supplement. According to the NIH, the amount of calcium the body can absorb from food is about 45 percent, if a person is getting a maximum of 2,000 mg/day. But after that, the percentage drops to just 15 percent. Although researchers are still exploring the link, it is recognized that too much calcium — more than 2,000 mg for women ages 51 and older and 2,500 mg for younger women — may cause heart issues, though this is rare. According to the NIH, hypercalcemia, or an excess of calcium, usually only happens in people who have underlying conditions such as cancer and primary hyperparathyroidism. If you have either of these, or existing heart disease, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider before taking calcium supplements.

2. Vitamin D: Bone, Mood, and Immune System Enabler

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that our bodies can make on their own when exposed to sunlight. It’s also found in vitamin D-fortified foods such as milk.

Why is vitamin D important? First of all, vitamin D helps our bodies absorb calcium. Our bodies can’t properly use calcium without it, says Thomsen Ferreira. It also enables the immune system to fight off viruses and bacteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some studies have also suggested vitamin D deficiency could be linked to depression. But according to a review of nearly 150 studies on the subject, the evidence clearly suggests a relationship between vitamin D and depression, but more research is still needed to fully understand how one may affect the other.

Who needs it? All women, especially the following:

  • Those who do not regularly drink milk or eat dairy foods fortified with vitamin D
  • Those who don’t get much direct exposure to sunlight
  • Those over 50 years old, since with age, the body becomes less efficient at processing vitamin D
  • People with diseases that limit fat absorption, such as those with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Individuals who are pregnant and breastfeeding

How much should you take? Vitamin D is available in two forms, D2 (ergocalciferol) and D3 (cholecalciferol). If you have low vitamin D levels or if your doctor recommends you to take a supplement, you may take a prescription dose or choose a vitamin D supplement that includes calcium, or choose a multivitamin supplement that includes both.

The NIH recommends that if you’re between ages 19 and 70, you should get at least 600 IU of vitamin D a day. (Note: 1 microgram, or mcg, equals 40 IU.) For those who are 71 years or older, increase your intake to 800 IU per day. Individuals who are breastfeeding or pregnant should get 600 IU per day. Ideally, people get vitamin D through diet and sun exposure, but some people may need supplements to meet their daily needs, and in some cases, your doctor may recommend getting more if you are deficient, according to the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

If you have darker skin, and therefore have more melanin in your skin, you may need more since melanin affects the body’s ability to synthesize vitamin D.

3. Fish Oil: The Heart Protector

Fish, such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon, are a rich source of omega-3s, namely EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).

These highly specialized fats can’t be made in our body. The fats are a key part of the structure of cell membranes and provide a starting point for hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Why is fish oil important? Omega-3s are essential for heart and blood vessel health and for reducing circulating triglycerides to lower heart disease risk, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reports. That’s incredibly important — heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States, CDC data shows. Omega-3s also has evidence showing it can support healthy joints, reduce inflammation, and may improve brain function, including thinking and memory. Research published in May 2021 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that people with managed coronary artery disease who were randomly assigned to take EPA and DHA supplements over about 2.5 years had significantly better cognitive function, including memory, than those in a control group that took a placebo.

Who needs it? All women, especially the following:

  • Those who don’t eat fish several times a week
  • Those at increased risk of heart disease (especially those who have elevated triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood)
  • Individuals who are pregnant and breastfeeding
  • Anyone with joint tenderness or rheumatoid arthritis, Thomsen Ferreira says

How much should you take? Although experts have not established recommended amounts for all omega-3 fatty acids, only for ALA (a precursor for EPA and DHA), the NIH recommends most adult females get 1.1 grams of ALA. However, people who have elevated levels of triglycerides, or fat in the blood, may benefit from more. If you have elevated triglycerides, you should talk to your healthcare provider about whether you should consider taking 4 grams of fish oil daily with a diet low in alcohol and fatty foods. If you’re pregnant, you may benefit from eating 8 to 12 ounces per week of low-mercury fish — such as salmon — the NIH recommends.

Talk to your physician before taking fish oil supplements if you are pregnant, have a history of bleeding disorders or are taking any medications, including blood thinners and blood pressure drugs, as well as any other supplements. You should also obviously avoid fish oil supplements if you are allergic to fish.

Take omega-3 supplements with food for better absorption and tolerance. Only take fish oil supplements certified to be very low in heavy metals, since fish can contain lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury, as well as contaminants and research products.

4. Folate: The Cell Generator

Folate is a water-soluble B vitamin — B9 — that naturally occurs in some foods, but can also be taken in a supplement. Leafy greens are a huge source of folate, especially spinach. So is beef liver, black-eyed peas, white rice, and Brussels sprouts, notes the NIH.

Why is folate important? Our cells need folate to make DNA, and without DNA, cells wouldn’t function properly, according to the NIH. Nor would they make new cells and tissue, such as skin and hair. Folate is also a key nutrient the body needs to metabolize amino acids.

During pregnancy, especially the first couple of weeks when individuals often don’t know they are pregnant, folate is critical in preventing neural tube abnormalities in the fetus, such as spina bifida, a type of neural tube defect that causes issues with the spine. “That prenatal period is so unique to our needs as women,” says Thomsen Ferreira.

Who needs it? Thomsen Ferreira recommends it’s best to get nutrients from food, but if anyone thinks they aren’t getting enough from food, they should consider taking a supplement. If you’re pregnant, take a prenatal supplement containing folate.

How much should you take? The NIH recommends that individuals who are healthy and nonpregnant should get 400 mcg dietary folate equivalents (DFE) of folate daily. This goes up to 600 mcg DFE if you’re pregnant and 500 mcg DFE for those who are breastfeeding.

5. Iron: The Blood Builder

According to Thomsen Ferreira, iron is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in adult females. Iron deficiency, or anemia, affects as many as five million Americans, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Why is iron important? Iron is a mineral that enables the blood to carry oxygen throughout the body. Everyone’s body uses iron to make two blood proteins. One, called hemoglobin, carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. The other, called myoglobin, carries oxygen to muscles, cites the NIH. It’s also essential for cell growth and hormones, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health notes.

Who needs it? How much iron a person needs depends on a host of factors, including age, sex, and whether you eat a plant-based diet, says the NIH.

For women, heavy menstruation, being active, and pregnancy can all be factors that can cause someone to have low iron. “They also need more iron as the pregnancy progresses,” Thomsen Ferreira says.

How much should you take? The NIH recommends teen females ages 14 to 18 years, who eat meat, get 15 mg of iron a day. Adult females aged 19 to 50 years should aim for 18 mg, and that amount drops after that. Females over age 50 need about 8 mg of iron daily, since they have typically started menopause and are no longer losing iron through menstruation. If you’re pregnant, the NIH recommends 27 mg, since the fetus requires lots of extra blood, and if you’re breastfeeding, you’ll need 9 mg. However, it’s more difficult to absorb iron from plant sources, so the NIH recommends getting nearly twice this much if you do not eat meat. But it is possible to get too much; adults shouldn’t typically get more than 45 mg of iron daily or it can actually cause health problems. Iron can also interact negatively with some Parkinson’s and diabetes medications.

Calcium supplements can also interfere with iron absorption, so if you’re taking both, or medications such as levodopa for Parkinson’s disease, levothyroxine for hypothyroidism, or proton pump inhibitors, you should take them at different times of day, the NIH warns.

If you’re worried about your iron levels, visit your doctor to have them checked. Good sources of animal-based iron are lean meat, seafood, and poultry, but iron also naturally occurs in white beans, lentils, spinach, kidney beans, and peas, as well as nuts and some dried fruits, such as raisins.

6. Magnesium: The Body Regulator

Magnesium is a mineral that’s abundant in food, but despite this, it’s estimated that as much as half of Americans are magnesium deficient, according to Oregon State University.

Why is magnesium important? Magnesium is a powerful mineral that’s involved in more than 300 enzyme systems that regulate biochemical reactions in the body, everything from protein synthesis to muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation, per the NIH. Every organ in the body requires magnesium to function, according to MedlinePlus.

The body can’t properly metabolize vitamin D without magnesium and it’s also important for calcium absorption, Thomsen Ferreira says.

Who needs it? Everyone, but active women may need more. “Sometimes if athletes are experiencing cramping, while it can be electrolytes, it can be magnesium deficiency,” explains Thomsen Ferreira. Magnesium may also help alleviate menstrual cramping, chronic diarrhea, gut inflammation, diabetes, and migraines.

How much should you take? The NIH recommends females age 19 to 30 years should get 310 mg of daily magnesium, but if they are breastfeeding, they should aim for 350 mg, and 310 mg if they are pregnant. Those 31 years and older should get 320 mg, or 360 mg if they are pregnant.

Great food sources of magnesium are leafy greens, especially spinach, as well as pumpkin seeds — which contain nearly 40 percent of a person’s daily magnesium in a single ounce — chia seeds, and almonds.

7. Lutein: The Eye Protector

Lutein is part of a fat-soluble class of nutrients called carotenoids, pigments that gives dark green vegetables, orange and yellow fruits, and egg yolks their vibrant hues. According to Thomsen Ferreira, lutein supplements often come paired with zeaxanthin, which naturally occurs in the same foods as lutein and which makes the carotenoid more bioavailable.

Why is lutein important? Lutein is an antioxidant that concentrates in the eyes to help protect them against free radicals, molecules that can damage DNA, lipids, and proteins, and can cause age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), a leading cause of blindness in older adults. It is also found in the skin and may help protect against the sun’s damaging light. One randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, published in December 2020 in the Journal of Functional Foodsshowed that lutein could contribute to skin defense against damage from ultraviolet radiation (UVR) — though the study authors noted that it’s not a substitute for sunscreen.

Who needs it? Everyone, but especially women with a family history of age-related macular degeneration.

How much should you take? There aren’t standard amounts for the ideal dosage, but you should take lutein supplements with food for more efficient absorption, says Thomsen Ferreira.

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